12/18/2002 1:00AM

Union Place back where he runs best


MIAMI - Union Place returns to the scene of his only graded stakes victory as one of the favorites in Saturday's $100,000 Pete Axthelm Stakes at Calder.

The 3-year-old Union Place outgamed Miesque's Approval to win the Grade 3 Calder Derby by a neck on Oct. 12, and it is likely the two rivals will match strides once again in the Axthelm.

Trainer Randy Schulhofer shipped Union Place to California for the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby earlier this month. Although Union Place finished sixth, the first time he was worse than fourth in nine starts this year, Schulhofer said he was pleased.

"He only got beat four lengths in a Grade 1 race with a $500,000 purse," said Schulhofer on Wednesday. "I'm not looking to make a bunch of excuses for him. He ran his race and just couldn't outfinish them, that's all."

Schulhofer said Union Place has done well since returning from the West Coast and is coming into the 7 1/2-furlong Axthelm in good order.

"He obviously handles the Calder surface well," said Schulhofer. "I'm not sure what we'll do with him this winter. We'll just see what happens on Saturday and take it from there."

Schulhofer has 15 horses bedded down in Barn 21 at Gulfstream. It's a change in venue for a stable that had been entrenched in Barn 9 on what is commonly referred to as "millionaire's row" for many years.

"It's just as warm and the sun shines just as brightly at this barn as it did at the old one, and that's what we're here for during the winter," said Schulhofer. "I could have brought 30 horses if I had been allotted that many stalls, but it's not a big deal. Sometimes you're better off in the long run giving some of your stock time off during the winter."

Among the other stakes winners Schulhofer will have this winter are Whitmore's Conn and Owsley. Whitmore's Conn, winner of the Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap, will be among the favorites in the $150,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap on Dec. 28. Owsley has not started since finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Velasquez plans to ride in Kentucky next spring

There will be a major shake-up in the jockey agent ranks when Gulfstream Park opens on Jan. 3.

Jockey Cornelio Velasquez will part company with agent Gil Graell and turn his book over to former rider Richard Depass. Velasquez is expected to leave the area with Depass and ride on the Kentucky circuit beginning next spring. Depass will also continue to handle engagements for Mark Guidry this winter at Gulfstream.

Graell, who has helped Velasquez to three consecutive Calder and Tropical-at-Calder riding titles, will join forces with M.R. Cruz at Gulfstream. Cruz, the leading rider at Tampa Bay Downs last winter, became an instant hit when he transferred his tack to Calder for the first time in 2002, and is currently third in the Tropical standings behind only Velasquez and Eibar Coa.

Platinum Tiara retired

Platinum Tiara, who finished second to Eclipse Award winner Caressing in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, has been retired and will be bred to A.P. Indy in the spring.

Platinum Tiara was owned and bred by former Major League pitcher Rob Murphy. A daughter of Cozzene and Michelle's Monarch, Platinum Tiara won the Brave Raj at Calder and Hillsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and was stakes-placed 11 times. She ended her career with 5 wins from 28 starts and earnings of more than $600,000.

* Senator Steve Geller (D-Hallandale Beach) has once again introduced a bill that would legalize video lottery terminals at Florida's parimutuel facilities. The bill, which is widely supported by the jai alai and greyhound interests in the state but greeted with less enthusiasm by the management of Gulfstream and Calder, has been referred to the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

* Doc Danner, agent for Hall of Fame rider Pat Day, says Day will ride Booklet in the $100,000 Fred Hooper Handicap and Rochester in the $150,000 McKnight Handicap on the Grand Slam II program on Dec. 28. Booklet, winner of the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth stakes at Gulfstream last winter, returned from a five-month vacation to defeat allowance company at Churchill Downs, with Day aboard, on Nov. 19.